"Snow in the Mountains"
- winter in the wilderness -
This winter we have been getting quite a bit of rain in the desert and whenever that happens the distant, surrounding mountains get covered in brilliant cap of snow. As I walked out along a desert trail yesterday, the view was so stunningly beautiful that it took my breath away. I was surrounded by snow-capped mountains rising up out of the vast expanse of endless, dry, wilderness terrain, all shrouded in billowy clouds – it was all so empty and so stark, so wild and frighteningly uncontrollable, and that is precisely what made it all all so incredibly beautiful and awesome.
I would imagine that most people associate the word “spirituality” with scenes of lush green pastures or warm ocean beaches, but I have found that the empty wilderness where I now reside is probably the most spiritual of all the places I have ever lived, even more so when the winter snows cover the distant stone mountains.
I remember something I once read about the spiritual lesson taught by the wilderness of a desert:
The desert reminds people of things they would rather forget,
taking them to the edges.
The desert is not a place of comfort,
it is a place of ‘wintery spirituality’ with its shrill cry of absence
contrasting with the ‘summer spirituality’
of easy exuberance and the glib certainty of divine presence.
No matter what time of year,
the desert experience is a wintery phenomenon,
more given to be emptied than filled.
It is harsh and lean in its imagery,
yet there is no greater love than desert love.
As I see it, most people in this culture probably have a very negative impression of the word, “emptiness.” When we experience emptiness we do our best to immediately fill the void. At the first sign of hunger we fill up empty stomachs, we avoid the lonely places in life, or perhaps fill up our isolation by seeking out constant companionship. We endeavor to fill our empty minds by packing them with knowledge and we try to satisfy our empty spirits with comfortable if not “glib” answers about “God.” And yet, as I look at some of the core teachings of most major world religions, they all have their roots in empty, wilderness places and they promote the value of embracing emptiness as a prized gift on the spiritual journey.
The Buddha finds enlightenment by sitting silently under the Bodhi tree with an empty heart and empty mind, awake to whatever might be revealed to him in the present moment. Judaism begins in the desert as the people of Israel are led through the wildness on their way to the “Promised Land.” Jesus begins his mission on earth by going alone into the wilderness where he finds the “meaning” of life. The prophet Muhammad likewise goes into the wilderness and there the spiritual wisdom that would be the seeds of Islam is revealed to him.
I think of something the ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, once taught:
Become totally empty.
Quiet the restlessness of the mind.
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from the emptiness.
I have come to a place in my life where I no longer feel the constant need to fill the void. I no longer fear or try to escape from emptiness and starkness; rather I embrace this as a great spiritual gift - the desert has taught me to do this, especially the desert in wintertime. And when I can become as empty as the wilderness in which I live, I find that I am always filed up, not by my own clever thoughts, plans or ideas but filled with a Presence and a power that is far beyond my own tiny little self.
Indeed, there is “no greater love than desert love,” and you don’t have to live in a desert to know this kind of love.